The Oldest Children’s Story in Persian History
Looking back to ancient times, there is a very long history of narration which includes thousands and thousands of stories. These are the stories of very old lands and they have been told throughout these lands' history. One of these lands of stories and legends is Persia and a story which reflects its history is the Asurik Tree.
The Asurik Tree is a debate between a goat and a palm tree. Designs on several ancient earthenware pots show that these two symbols were related to the lives and beliefs of ancient people in what is today Iran.
One of the oldest relics depicting a goat and a palm tree is a five thousand year-old earthen goblet found in Burnt City in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan in southeastern Iran.
This ancient piece has been called the first example of animation in the world. In a series of five images, the goat drawn by the artist jumps toward a tree and eats its leaves as the goblet is turned.
The Story of the Asurik Tree
The story of the Asurik Tree dates back to nearly 3,000 years ago. Throughout these 3,000 years, it has traveled around Persia, reflecting the different lives of its people in each new narration. It is one of the oldest written children’s stories in the world and its changes reflect the changes in human civilization.
The Asurik Tree is a legend in rhythmic verse which was related by storytellers, called “Gosan” (Balladeers), in ancient times. After centuries of the story being told orally, about two thousand years ago it was written in the Pahlavi script during the Sasanid period.
This legend is about what might seem to be a battle of wits between a palm tree and a goat. In fact, it represents a symbolic confrontation between the era of agriculture, as represented by the tree, and raising cattle, as represented by the goat, a struggle between two ways of life central to Iran’s history.
"The palm tree stuck his drum,
Dum, dum, dum,
Dum, dum, dum,
I am the palm
With my head high and calm,
My fruits are like gold,
That is the way it is told.
With my leaves big and green,
I look better than spring.
Now it was the goat's turn,
The goat with the short tail,
To strike the drum,
Dum, dum, dum,
Dum, dum, dum,"
The benefits of palm trees and goats are named one by one in this narration.
Narrated orally, or in written form, this story is a masterpiece of conveying the concepts and functions of ordinary things like an animal and a plant in human life.
The Asurik Tree has a debate structure and this literary genre has a very old history in Iranian culture. This kind of debate is based on the act of praising one’s power and fighting skills. There are two characters that stand on two opposite sides. The first character invites the rival to fight. Each side boasts of his advantages. Interestingly, their advantages and benefits are all based on the needs of man, the third character, who is not present at the scene but is the narrator of this debate and whose attitude toward his world has formed the story.
Although this legend reflects two ways of life, it was a story for children, and through it, children learned about the benefits of palm trees and goats for humans.
Strabo, the Greek historian, indicates that the Persians used songs to educate their children and he adds:
There is said to be a Persian song wherein are enumerated three hundred and sixty uses of the palm tree; and, as for oil, the people use mostly that of sesame, but this plant is rare in all other places.
And this song is nothing but the Asurik Tree legend.
Because of its unique content and coherent structure, the Asurik Tree has survived as a literary text through centuries. Among the documents which have been discovered in recent years by researchers on the history of Iranian children’s literature, are lithographic prints of other versions of this legend revealing how this story changed during the course of history and as it traveled from place to place.
While the original tale is about a goat and a palm tree, another version is about a sheep and a grapevine. This version is found in another region of Iran, on the skirts of the Zagros Mountains, where instead of palm trees, grapevines grow and instead of goats, sheep are raised.
Stories narrate roots,
They narrate friendships and wars, defeats and victories.
The palm tree was defeated by the goat, but it survived
The goat overcame the palm tree
And another one of history’s winners is introduced
Every story needs a loser and a winner
Because life ebbs and flows in defeats and victories
Stories are rooted in everyday life, and
Everyday life changes to history after years and centuries.
Zohreh Ghaeni, Iran
31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008